Did the West ignore a Russian offer for Assad to step down as President?

by Brian Slocock


A story published in the Guardian on 16 September entitled “West ‘ignored Russian offer for Assad to step down as President’” has evoked considerable excitement on both sides of the Atlantic. The story is based on a claim by former Finnish President and UN Diplomat Martti Ahtisaari that the West failed to respond to an overture made in February 2012 by Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. According to Ahtisaari, Churkin, in a private conversation suggested a means for resolving the Syrian crisis:

He said: ‘Martti, sit down and I’ll tell you what we should do.’ “He said three things: One – we should not give arms to the opposition. Two – we should get a dialogue going between the opposition and Assad straight away. Three – we should find an elegant way for Assad to step aside.”

The Guardian seems to have felt the need to “sex up” these comments, turning them into a “3-point plan”. (Of course this plan already existed, in the form of the Arab League initiative of 22 January 2012, of which more below).

Ahtisaari states that he communicated this conversation to the western missions at the UN but “the US, Britain and France were so convinced that the Syrian dictator was about to fall, they ignored the proposal.” Ahtisaari says he is convinced that Churkin was making his suggestion “on behalf of the Kremlin” and describes this incident as “an opportunity lost”.

This latter contention has been latched on to by various commentators to suggest that the West’s failure to respond to this initiative is responsible for the subsequent humanitarian crisis that unfolded in Syria. Even the Guardian’s usually reliable Julian Borger (co-author of the article) seems to gives credence this notion, reciting the terrible events that followed February 2012. Borger at least (somewhat contradictorily) notes that “Officially, Russia has staunchly backed Assad through the four-and-half-year Syrian war, insisting that his removal cannot be part of any peace settlement.” And notes that Kofi Anan’s 2012 peace plan of “soon fell apart over differences on whether Assad should step down.” (i.e. over Russia’s refusal to consider Assad’s removal.)

Other commentators, ranging from the right-wing Daily Mail to American left-wing “policy analyst” Phyllis Bennis, have been more explicit in connecting these events , arguing that the current wave of refugees fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs could have been avoided if the west had listened to Vitaly Churkin in February 2012.

Here is Bennis’s sweeping claim (rather undermined by the welter of conditionals she feels obliged to introduce into her argument)

But what we now see very visibly with these new revelations from Martti Ahtisaari is how in the case of the rise of ISIS … and the war in Syria which is at the root of the rise of ISIS, the refusal of the United States and its allies to take seriously the possibility of negotiating an end to that conflict before it ever reached this horrific level, to negotiate the stepping down, maybe the stepping down, potentially the stepping down, possibly, of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, would have dramatically changed the situation there.

So let’s try and evaluate this story by looking at exactly what was happening on the diplomatic front with respect to Syria at this point in time.

Ahtisaari reports his conversation with Vitaly Churkin as taking place on or about 22 February. In the week leading up to 4 February Churkin was in New York where negotiations were taking place on a draft resolution on Syria. Sponsored by a group of western and Arab governments this condemned the Syrian government’s brutal repression of the democratic opposition and, among other things, called for the implementation of the Arab League’s very “elegant proposal” that Asad should hand over to his Vice-President while negotiations on the formation of a transitional government took place.

We know something about the negotiation process for this resolution, because of a number of leaks. Churkin, on behalf of Russia, insisted on several changes to the initial draft:

  1. The removal of a phrase expressing “ grave concern at the continued transfer of weapons into Syria” (could be seen as criticising Russia for arming the regime)
  2. The removal of the provision that specifically proposed Asad handing over to his Vice President.
  3. Removal of a call for “transparent and free elections under Arab and international supervision” (Russia preferred to put faith in Asad’s promises of reform)

Despite these major concessions Russia and China vetoed the resolution (S/2012/77) when it came to the vote on 4 February on the grounds it was “imbalanced”.

Explaining his vote Churkin invoked purely spurious arguments: “ Nor has account been taken of our proposals that along with the withdrawal of the Syrian armed forces from the cities, there should be an end to attacks by armed groups on State institutions and neighbourhoods”. In fact the resolution condemned “all violence, irrespective of where it comes from, and in this regard demands that all parties in Syria, including armed groups, immediately stop all violence or reprisals, including attacks against State institutions”

Churkin went on to underline his opposition to any suggestion that Asad might be edged out of power – despite the fact that the resolution contained none ‑ complaining “some influential members of the international community … have undermined any possibility of a political settlement, calling for regime change”.

In effect Churkin’s role in this episode was to provide cover for the Asad regime (its noteworthy that although the Russians had a resolution of their own they never sought to move it at the Security Council, as members of the UN press corps noted. What Russia really wanted was no UN Resolution.)

Churkin votes against Security Council Resolution on Syria: 4 February 2012

Churkin’s stand was supported 4 days later by a statement from Russian President, Dimitri Medvedev, who endorsed the Russian veto; and at about the same time Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Asad in Damascus (with the Russian security chief in tow) reporting at the conclusion of his visit that everything was going to be fine – Asad would rein in the regime’s violence and launch political reforms. (A thousand civilians were killed by the regime’s security forces in the following 3 weeks)

This scenario was rerun on 16 February when the vetoed Security Council Resolution was put to the General Assembly (where it was not subject to the veto but also had no legal force). There it received wide support and was adopted with 137 states voting for, 17 abstaining and only 12 against – one of which was Russia.

Perhaps we can understand why UN diplomats, who had spent over two weeks wrestling with Churkin, trying unsuccessfully to get him to at least say boo to Asad, were sceptical when a week later they were informed that he had suddenly become a convert to “regime change”.

So how to explain this discrepancy between the historical record and Ahtisaari’s account? I have no idea (although my suspicion is that Churkin was just having a little joke)

An issue of no consequence
One reason for not dwelling any longer on this issue is that it is really a storm in a teapot. (Although in the age of the internet teapot-storms ignored can readily become disinformation cyclones). What’s really important here is not what Vasily may have said to Martti back in 2012, but what practical consequences the incident had – the simple answer is absolutely none.

Claims à la Bennis that failure to seize this alleged “missed opportunity” is responsible for subsequent events in Syria are simply absurd. They are predicated on an assumption that international policy makers ignored Ahtisaari’s chat with Churkin and went to sleep for the next three years. What exactly was this “policy analyst” doing in the period March ‑ June 2012 – one of the most intense periods of international diplomacy of the whole Syrian conflict?

Kofi Annan was appointed joint UN / Arab League Special Envoy almost at the precise moment Churkin was having his chat with Ahtisaari, drawing his authority from the General Assembly Resolution Russia had opposed. A month later Annan launched a 6-point plan to end the conflict. (Annan later  developed  another “elegant formula” for the removal of Asad – “exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation” – but that was blocked by Russia). From April to August UN monitors were stationed in Syria. But the initiative was effectively dead by June, because of Assad’s failure to comply with a single one of the 6-point plan’s requirements.

Western governments tried to provide Annan with some leverage by proposing a Security Council resolution demanding that the Assad regime comply with its obligations under the Plan. On 19 July Russia (along with China) vetoed it. In a thoroughly duplicitous statement Churkin claimed that the resolution would have opened the way to military intervention – but in fact it only raised the possibility of enforcement under Article 41 (“measures not including the use of armed force.”)

Given the lack of backing from the Security Council, Annan then resigned. His parting statement included the message “It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office.” –a message that no Russian diplomat has ever shown the slightest readiness to act on ‑ then or since.

  • Brian Slocock is a retired political scientist who has written on in civil conflicts, a long-time left activist, and a supporter of the UK Syria Solidarity Movement.

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